Friday, April 1, 2011

NPM: The Trees

(Photograph stolen from Jay Wesler.)

Well ladies, it has been brought to my attention that April is National Poetry Month in these United States. Explanation from poets.org:

Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

Ha ha ha! I think that's very cute.

Nevertheless, as I am one of those soy milk-drinking, dreamy-eyed little dandies who enjoys reading poetry, for the duration of April I will update this "web-log" every other day or so with a favorite poem of mine to share. Once National Poetry Month is over, I promise we can talk more about video games and children's cartoons again.

Let's get this thing started with a piece by New Jersey's own William Carlos Williams (1883-1963): Modernist, Imagist, physician, stylistic tinkerer, and quirky weirdo. The man continues to be a mystery to me. I have a volume containing every poem he wrote between 1909 and 1939, and I am still trying to figure out how he thinks. I often find myself approaching a W.C.W. piece as I would a riddle. Indeed, in "Janauary Morning" (1917), the man himself writes:

I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it?
But you got to try hard—
But—
Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well,
that’s the way it is with me somehow.

Perhaps he would make more sense to me if I got along to reading the stuff he wrote after 1939.

Anyway, here's a piece of his from around 1930. My edition's appendix includes two longer, less-edited versions published prior to the "final" take, which I'll include below to help us triangulate the piece's intended meaning(s). As for a possible reason why the finished version ended up so much shorter than the prototypes, Williams writes: "I was trying to get speed in verse. There is not enough time in the modern world to be prolix. [Editor's note -- ain't it the fucking truth.] I was feeling for an impetuous rhythm -- a Declaration of Independence from every restraint."

Without further ado:


The Trees
by William Carlos Williams

(Final version)

The trees—being trees
thrash and scream
guffaw and curse—
wholly abandoned
damning the race of men—

Christ, the bastards
haven't even sense enough
to stay out in the rain—

Wha ha ha ha

Wheeeeee
clacka tacka tacka
tacka tacka
wha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha

knocking knees, buds
bursting from each pore
even the trunk's self
putting out leafheads—

Loose desire!
we naked cry to you—
"Do what you please."

You cannot!

—ghosts
sapped of strength

wailing at the gate
heartbreak at the bridgehead—
desire
dead in the heart

haw haw haw haw
—and memory broken

wheeeeee

There were never satyrs
never mænads
never eagle-headed gods—
These were men
from whose hands sprung
love
bursting the wood—

Trees their companions
—a cold wind winterlong
in the hollows of our flesh
icy with pleasure—

no part of us untouched


(Imagist Anthology version:)

The trees—being trees
thrash and scream
guffaw and curse—
wholly abandoned
new with buds—
damning the race of men—

Christ, the bastards
haven't even sense enough
to stay out in the rain—

Wha ha ha ha

wheeeeeee
clacka tacka tacka
tacka tacka
wha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha

knocking knees buds
bursting from each pore
even the trunk's self
putting out leafheads—

The cold wind
has had us his own
winter long, his kiss
did not leave
a part of us untouched—

Wailing at the gate
heartbreak at the bridgehead—

What gone
And whence returning?
Seedless, spent

Science
—wheeeee!

ghosts
sapped of strength—
desire dead
in the heart—

Philosophy!
—haw haw haw haw
and memory broken.

Loose desire.
"Do what you please"
we naked cry to you

Listen!
there were never satyrs
never mænads
never eagle-headed gods—

these were men
from whose hands sprung
love
bursting the wood—
Trees were their
companions—


(The Miscellany version:)

The trees—being trees
thrash and scream
wholly abandoned
new with buds—

Christ (man) God in
Heaven Almighty
why have you created me
for lice to crawl on?

they lash
resisting the wind

God (man) Almighty King
in Heaven since men
have no thought
other—

than to kill,
the only hole left—
we, the undersigned,
the trees, rooted
make a vocabulary
of our green pricks
to resemble the sharp stars—
while we are hot,
hot and the wind whips
us till the triple
crotch wrenches and
groans—

Christ, the bastards
haven't sense enough
to stay out in the rain—

Wha ha ha ha

There stands "Shakespeare"
on his branch of
glass not even his
name certain—

and here he stands for
this is he—
in money
unable to pull his foot
out—

wheeeee
who aw ah eeeee
clacka tacka tacka
tacka tacka
wha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha

knocking knees buds
bursting from each pore
even the trunk's self
putting out leafheads—

The cold wind
has had us his own
winter long, his kiss
did not leave
a part of us untouched—

Blight the
race of men. Chop
them down.

Wailing at the gate
heartbreak at the bridgehead—

Seedless, spent

Science
—wheeeee!
ghosts
sapped of strength—
desire dead
in the heart—

Philosophy!
—haw haw haw haw

Where is the memory
unpocked with
the disease of school—

Loose desire,
we, naked, cry to you
"Do what you please."

You cannot,
no wind winterlong
in the hollows of
your flesh—
icy with pleasure—

There were never satyrs
never mænads
never eagle-headed gods—
This is
the language of desire

these were men
Trees their
companions—

nothing
on this earth then
not now to be had here—
but for a decaying
memory; nothing
to be learned now
not long since forgotten.


I would like very much for you to consider a few things:

1.) What's at the bottom of the riddle here? What is Mr. Williams trying to get across to us? (And please don't fall back on some limp environmentalist message. That would be too easy and also wrong.)

2.) The finished version obviously contains a lot less information than the Imagist version, which itself differs from the Miscellany take. Does each version mean something different? Is the final version streamlined, saying more with less -- or does it say something entirely other once those pieces are removed?

3.) Go out right now and look at some trees. Do they look more sinister to you than they did before?

If you have any replies, thoughts, complaints, etc., please post them! I would truly like to know your reactions, especially if you happened to wander in here from some a video game website or other and aren't accustomed to reading this sort of thing.

5 comments:

  1. So I started typing this when I stumbled home very drunk last night... then passed out before finishing. I will try to edit into coherence...

    Trees have seen all of our follies and are judging us. In the last lines of the Final Version, I get the idea that the perfection and efficiency of trees is a constant insult to us and this mockery has corroded our self-esteem ever since the men who were thought to be satyrs and eagle-headed gods who, perhaps by being inspired by/associated with trees/nature in the first place, doomed us to a permanent inferiority complex. Did that run-on sentence make sense? That perhaps we have always associated the ones from whom love "sprung" with trees and nature, and we will always compare ourselves to them and try to learn from them, and will always fall short. So from our perspective, it will seem that the trees are mocking us.

    But that opens the door to a further interpretation, that this whole thing is about the flawed ego-based human perception that trees are A) capable of insulting us, and B) that just because trees maybe all look/act similar and seem to always be around that that they are immortal and invincible. We feel threatened by something that we (mistakenly) perceive as superior. Sorta like the way some people, when they meet someone who seems to be better at what they want to do than they are, become prone to feel insulted by that person's every word. Maybe not. But if I was out drinking with him the night before and I was bitching about my ex's awesome new boyfriend, and then he posted this on his blog, I'd like, "Hey, wait a minute! Were you comparing my ranting about how my ex's awesome new boyfriend makes me feel like crap about my life with a man feeling insulted by trees?"

    What the hell is a "triple crotch"? I googled it and only got some backyard wrestling videos. Is it a tree that has grown into three main trunks from one source?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The reason it took me so long to respond is because I'm not really sure what I can add to this!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi, I found your blog via a google search. This has long been one of my favorite poems. Can you tell me what anthology you have, that includes the appendices with these versions? Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ah! Hopefully you're checking back, because I can't find an email address to send this to.

    Check check it.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    ReplyDelete